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Col. Philip A. McNair Reflects On Surviving The Pentagon Attack On September 11

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Twenty years ago today, Philip McNair was busy at work in the outer ring at the Pentagon. The 47-year-old colonel was leading a Tuesday staff meeting when...

PHILIP MCNAIR: At 9:37, we heard this tremendous crash.

SIMON: The lights went out in the windowless room.

MCNAIR: We saw a ripple of fire across the ceiling tiles, and the room started filling up with smoke.

SIMON: Someone tried to open the conference room's front door. It was jammed shut. The smoke was thick and choking. Colonel McNair and others dropped to their hands and knees to breathe. They crawled to the rear door, which opened into a dark maze of cubicles and office furniture. And we should warn listeners some details in Colonel McNair's account are graphic.

MCNAIR: It was chaotic at this point. We were on our hands and knees crawling around. People were moving in different directions. The speakers are going off, saying, please evacuate the building. There was so much smoke, and you could see pockets of fire that we weren't sure how we could get out. The sprinklers came on, which we were very grateful for because we were getting pretty damn hot at this point.

Just when we thought things were very dire for us, we came to an area where we began to see some light. We had come to an interior window. There was a young man there, an Army specialist who was trying to - he threw a printer against it. I watched him throw this printer as we're crawling up. It bounced back and hit him. But the flight exploding had knocked that window slightly off of its window jam. So the specialist and I sat up on that window jam and with our feet began to kick this window until we were able to pry it open just far enough that we could get people out.

SIMON: Much of the world knew already that was Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon. You knew nothing about the Twin Towers - right? - at that point.

MCNAIR: That's correct. We did not know. And certainly, if somebody had said to us, a plane has flown into the Pentagon at that point, we would've thought they were crazy.

So we started lowering people out the window. Now, we're on the second floor. In an office building, a second floor is 15, 20 feet, you know, off the ground. It's not like being on the second floor of a home.

SIMON: Yeah.

MCNAIR: Some people were kind of scared to get out, but they were more scared to stay in. So when we got everybody out, I took one last look around, went back in and yelled a bit just to see if I could hear anybody else - hearing nothing, seeing nothing. I couldn't breathe in this environment anyway. So I went out the window and jumped down to the road.

SIMON: I've got to point out you did get a Soldier's Medal for your heroism in 2001, in part because after you got out, you went back.

MCNAIR: Well, I just - I felt like a significantly terrible thing had just happened. It wasn't time for me to go yet. People were working at ground level back inside the Pentagon. Where the wall had been breached, there were wires hanging down, sparking like in a horror movie. There was smoke pouring out. And I joined this group of people, and we went in, moving office equipment out so we could reach people that were inside. We were able to get about seven folks out.

One of the Pentagon police officers came up and said, you guys got to get out of here; it was an airplane that hit the Pentagon. And we were kind of like, what the hell are you talking about? And he said, yeah, and they also hit the Twin Towers in New York City, and we've got word there's another plane inbound and you got to clear out of this area. So that was the first we had heard about an airplane.

SIMON: That was the flight that wound up in Shanksville, Pa.

MCNAIR: That's what I understand.

So I walked down the road, walked through the tunnel to the courtyard of the Pentagon. There were some ambulances there. There were a lot of - there was a man laying on a stretcher there, one of our guys. His name was John Yates. And I reached down to be face to face with him to let him know that, you know, that I saw him and knew him and wanted him to feel OK. I tried to shake his hand, and his skin just sloughed off in my hand. I didn't realize just how badly burned he was. John ended up making it, but he suffered a lot of burns and was in the Washington Burn Center for a long time.

So after I saw John and they took him away in the ambulance, I wasn't breathing too well at that time because of the smoke. And I went up to one of the ambulances, and I said, can you just give me a couple of breaths of oxygen? You know, I must have probably looked like a zombie or something. They pulled me into the ambulance, started cutting my clothes off and hooking me up with oxygen and stuff and said, we're taking you to the hospital. I said, look; I'm not that bad. I just need to get some oxygen. No, you're going to the hospital. So off we went. I rode in the back of this ambulance and ended up at Virginia Hospital Center.

Cell service was probably just overloaded. My wife couldn't call. They couldn't call her. So she was in her own reality because she could see on the news there's the part of the Pentagon that the plane hit and collapsed, and that was my office.

SIMON: A hundred and twenty-five people in the Pentagon were killed and 59 on board the flight. You must've known many of the people who died in the Pentagon.

MCNAIR: Everybody who worked in my normal daily office, including my boss, all of our administrative staff and many others there - I think 23 of our people were killed that day.

SIMON: I know, of course, you're in the military and you understand that anybody in the military might pay that price, but still, to have so many people suddenly gone, what was it like for you? What have these last 20 years been like for you when you think of that?

MCNAIR: Well, in the first weeks after, I think we were all kind of in a state of shock. We returned to work the next day, those of us who were able to do that, working out of temporary offices in Alexandria. And interestingly, without any coordination whatsoever, we all showed up in our battle dress uniforms. Those first few weeks, we went to funerals and memorial services. I don't know. I think I was numb through most of that. The thing that buoyed our spirits a bit was the patriotism that this whole thing inspired. Everywhere you went, on overpasses, you know, with flags hanging down, and everything was very patriotic.

But over the years - I don't know how to describe it. I wonder, you know, what they would be doing today. I feel guilty sometimes. You just continue and you live your life, and you think it could happen to you but be grateful for the time that you have.

SIMON: What's it like for you to see the pictures about the withdrawal from Afghanistan and members of the Taliban celebrating in the presidential palace?

MCNAIR: I think it's completely disgusting. Leaving Afghanistan, particularly the way we did it, is just terrible. Most people, I don't believe, understand why we went to Afghanistan because 9/11 was so far away. I mean, they obviously went to Afghanistan because of what happened to us. Now you've got al-Qaida and you've got the Taliban. You've got ISIS in there. And when we had a small presence there, we could at least have intelligence, we could at least run operations out of there. I think we have now lost the ability to gather that intelligence and to have a presence there. And I don't think we're ever going to be able to get it back. The country's just getting a black eye over it.

SIMON: What would you like people to know on this 20th anniversary?

MCNAIR: Boy, that's a tough one, Scott. I guess down deep, I've learned there are bad people in the world, no doubt. I mean, there are terrorists doing terrible things in all sorts of places and treating people very badly. But there's also a lot of wonderful people, too.

SIMON: Colonel McNair, thanks very much for speaking with us.

MCNAIR: Thank you, Scott. It was a privilege to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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